What Goes into a Painting?

Art, A Labor of Love, But Still Labor!

I love creating artwork, it is very fulfilling work, but, and this may surprise some people… it is still work.  Sure, its work I choose to do, work I enjoy doing.  Just like someone who has a hobby of gardening chooses to work in the garden, and someone who loves restoring classic cars chooses to work in the garage.

Not All the Work is just Drawing and Painting

Then, if I choose to sell my art work, there is more work involved. Some if it is just time consuming, like what needs to be done for online sales, and some is back-breaking physical work like what needs to be done for in person sales.

For online sales I have post keep up with listings online, I need to promote and share the work on social media (since people won’t buy it if they don’t know its there).  For in person sales I have to load everything in my van, take it to the outdoor market or art walk, set up my tables, display walls, and/or canopy, hang up all the paintings and arrange the other pieces on the tables.  Then of course I need to stick around for the duration of the market, talking to people, smiling and saying hi and going out of my way to appear cheerful, even if on a particular day I am not making enough to cover what I paid to be at the market.  Then I pack everything up and go home at the end.  I don’t know if my reader has ever set up a commercial canopy, folding tables, plus a bunch of displays… but it is a lot of physical work to have four or five hours to attempt sales.  Some days after all this I’ve made a little more than I spent, other days I haven’t even covered my booth fee, let alone the cost of my materials to make my art, and let alone especially actually making anything to speak of for my time spent.

Selling Art at the Farmer's Market
My booth at the Farmer’s Market.

Yet I keep doing it because I love making art, and I want other people to enjoy my art as well.  Of course I also hope that someday it will pay off so that I can first break even, and perhaps even make a few bucks an hour for my work.

I view the market days more as advertising than as actual sales opportunities, I use the “sell on etsy” app, so every sale made at the market, even if not profitable because of the booth fee, helps to raise my etsy shop in the search rankings.  I also hand out a lot of flyers for my commissioned pet portraits.

So Now, What Does Go into a Painting?

Well, as I said before, love.  Take for instance the latest pet portrait I’ve been working on.  Its just a little 5×7, many people balk when they hear I charge $20 for a little 5×7 painting.  But what went into it?

Well, first I had to connect to a customer, this meant that I had to be at the market distributing my pet portrait flyers. This meant that for three weeks I was at the market, paying the booth fee, and two of those weeks I didn’t earn quite enough to cover the fee… but I won’t count the two weeks that didn’t connect me with this customer, I’ll just focus on the week that did connect me with them.

Well, that day I was fortunate to make a sale right away that covered my booth fee, which meant that if I sold anything else, I was coming out slightly ahead for my efforts.  I like days like that, and after that point, remaining cheerful and sociable was easier than it is on days when I am operating in the red for the day.

So, here I am in my booth for five hours, and I made a few sales beyond that first sale I already mentioned, I also talked to people handed out business cards and flyers, and generally tried to get my name out there.  I watched as two people walked up, oohed and ahh-ed over one of my paintings, asked the price, and then upon hearing the price quickly found that they had to be somewhere else.

I resisted the urge to point out that this was not a mass produced print-on-canvas from Walmart, it was an original painting, from the artist, with probably 20 or more hours of work into it.  Instead I just watched them go.  I don’t believe in the “hard sale”, I did offer to give them a 25% discount, but apparently that wasn’t enough.  I am not going to act like a used car salesman, either someone values my work or they don’t, I wished them a nice day and watched them leave.

Okay, finally the older couple with their granddaughter walk into my tent.  The granddaughter is visiting from another state, and will only be around for one more week, but she MUST get one of my pet portraits she says, but she needs to have it by next Saturday.   I explain I can have a 5×7 or 8×10 ready by next Saturday, but the larger sizes may or may not be doable.  It turns out that isn’t an issue, since they are only interested in the 5×7.

I take down the information to contact them if I need to, and tell her I need photos of the dog.  She sends to my phone several low-resolution, fuzzy pictures, none of which that really shows the dog’s whole face, but that’s okay, I can work with them, between all the photos I feel I can get what I need.  The most problematic thing is that in the pose she wants, the dog is wearing a shirt, and she doesn’t want him wearing a shirt in the painting.  That means I have no way of viewing the shadows and muscle structure on much of the dog’s body.  I figure I’ll “fake my way” through it, and do okay by looking at pictures of other dogs of the same breed, and assuming her dog has similar muscle structure.

That night after the market I get right to work.  I don’t want to waste time, because this painting needs to be finished by the next week.  The dog I’m painting is a pit bull, one of the most misunderstood breeds.  Here comes the “love ingredient” again.  As I paint, I feel as if I’m bonding with this dog.  His eyes look so soulful.  Pleading.  I think about how everyone assumes a pit bull is a bad dog, then I decide the title of the piece should be, “But I’m not a Bad Dog!” as he looks over his shoulder with his puzzled, emotion filled eyes.

A couple of times as I paint his eyes, my own eyes start to tear up… I tell myself to knock it off and get the painting done.

After about 4 1/2 hours, getting up several times to try to find pictures of pit bulls sitting with their back turned to the camera, and not really succeeding.  I just do my best to imagine the shading, and  I decide I”m done for the night.  I have a painting that looks like this:

Portrait of a pitbull
Pit Bull Portrait

I go to bed.

The next day, I post the picture of the painting on a facebook group for artists.  Every person either clicks like or says something positive.  One person says it looks “cartoonish” because of the lack of texture in the back.  Well, I am not offended by this, I think its a little true, so I decide to try touching up the back and trying to get more realistic shading in it.  I add shadows for the ribs, but then I feel like the dog looks too thin.  So I paint them mostly out, leaving just a hint of them.  I give the dog a more prominent shoulder, since I notice most pit bulls have fairly large shoulders, perhaps a slightly deeper chest too.  Yes, now that looks better.  A few more highlights, reduce the wrinkles in the neck as I realize they were mostly caused by the tight t-shirt and the dog probably doesn’t usually have such prominent neck folds.

Yes, now I feel like I’m looking at a well proportioned pit bull.  I look at the clock, I’ve spent another 2 hours on it.  So, now it has taken 6 1/2 hours, and I still need to do the isolation coat(s) and two layers of varnish.  Those are not labor intensive, most of the time spent is just waiting for layers to dry.  I figure the actual labor involved will add another 15 minutes to the time altogether.  Then I’ll wire the painting for hanging, that will take another 5-15 minutes, depending on how it goes. So all in all this 5×7, $20 portrait, will have taken me between 6 hours, 50 minutes to 7 hours to complete.

My paints are some of the highest quality, so I’d say that I probably used at least $2 worth of paint, medium, and varnish… at least.  Then there’s the canvas.  I don’t remember what I spent on it, it may or may not have been on sale when I bought it, however to buy another like it right now will cost me around $2.50 unless I can find a really good sale… so from my $20 price tag, lets take off $4.50 in materials.  That means I made $15.50 on this painting.  It took me around 7 hours to complete… so I made (insert drum-roll here) around $2.21 an hour!!! And I didn’t even count the cost of my hanging wire and eyelets for the back of the canvas! I also spent a lot of time at the market waiting for the customer to show up, you know, time that, if I was working for someone else at a store, I’d have been being paid for… but I don’t know any artist who worries about that time watching the booth, we just count the time spent actually creating the art.

So, is Creating Art Worth it?

Financially, is it worth it?  Well, I’d make more with my time working at a minimum wage job.  So I can’t really say its “worth it” financially at this point.  Of course, someday, after I have my name out there a bit more, perhaps I’ll be able to charge more, maybe I’ll even make $5 an hour!!!!  😀

But is it worth it?  Well, I loved making the painting.  I will love seeing the granddaughter’s happy face at receiving the portrait of her best friend.  I will smile with pleasure seeing her walk away happy, and knowing that she will put that painting on display and enjoy looking at it and thinking of her dog.  Thinking about that makes me happy.

So, Was it Worth It?  Absolutely!
Is Creating Art Worth it, Absolutely! Click To Tweet


So, next time you see an artist selling original artwork, stop, think.  Remember this isn’t a print.  Remember that the artist may have spent 7, 8, 10, or even 40 hours creating it.  Remember that even though the artist LOVES creating, her time is still limited, just like yours, and still worth something.  She still has bills, still has a family that needs to eat, still has to set aside the time to create, and even though she loves it, that is time she is not spending earning money somewhere else, or relaxing with her family.

Visit an art supply store, look at the professional grade paints, not the student paints, the professional ones.  Look at the canvases, at what is charged for a canvas with nothing painted on it.  Look for something called “soft gel gloss”, this is used for an isolation coat over the painting, check the price.  Then look for professional grade polymer varnish, this is used as a final protective coat over acrylic paintings, usually two coats are required.  Now, check the price of hanging wire and eyelets to attach it to the back of the painting…

Am I telling you to do all this to guilt you into spending more than you can afford to?  No, your family needs to eat as well… I am simply telling you this to help you understand, that most artists are actually NOT charging extravagant, inflated prices for their work.  Most artist are making less with their time than the guy handing you your tacos through the drive-through window.  So, if you see an artist with work you like, even if you can’t afford the painting, try not to look shocked and horrified when the artist tells you the price, and don’t say things like, “I could never spend that much on a picture!!!”  Instead, smile and tell the artist you like it, but don’t have the money for the original right then, and inquire if and when prints of the work might be available, or if the artist has any similar smaller works that might be in your budget.  And, if you know someone who CAN afford original artwork, take a business card and pass it along to that person, be sure to mention how AMAZING the artist’s work is and strongly urge the person to check it out.  Perhaps even log onto the artist’s website with them, and show them the artist’s work.
Who knows, maybe when they see how much you like the artist’s work, they might even buy you a piece as a gift!

Think back to the gardener and classic car restorer I mentioned in my first paragraph.  They also love what they are doing, but you wouldn’t expect the gardener to pay for a booth at the farmers market and give the vegetables away for free from that booth.

You also would never expect someone to spend countless hours restoring a 1957 Chevy, and then turn around and sell it to you for $100 bucks.  You would understand that uniqueness of this custom restored car, and the hours of work spent restoring it, justified a fair price, and if you couldn’t afford it, you wouldn’t insult the person by trying to get them to sell it for less than 1/10 of its value.  Instead you would tell them what a neat car it was, and express that you wished you had the money for it, and leave them at least feeling good about the work they did.